Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Student Comments on Empathy Protocols: Some Things I Learned

In the last couple of blog posts, I have been exploring the idea of empathy and this spring I designed a more formal protocol that I had students try six times in succession on different pieces of fiction to see what the effect would be. The idea behind doing the protocol so many times in succession is that it enhances the internalization or "muscle memory" that all performers use as they become more expert in their field. The objective is to use the protocol so many times that you don't even think about it anymore--the skill is automatic and tacit. While this did not make me particularly beloved by the students, it did put all of us into the DKDK zone in a good way.

Like most of the cognitive skills experiments I try, they get mixed results. For some students, this opened new ways to see the world and themselves; for other students it felt like homework that was a lot of work for little gain. This makes complete sense to me because we all have such different cognitive gifts.  It seems to me that a main purpose of school ought to be the identification (perhaps "diagnosis," though people tell me that word has too many negative connotations with illness) of the dominant cognitive strengths a student possesses, and then a proposal of strategies for cognitive growth. The goal is clear:  to make a student the "author of his/her own learning.

What follows are parts of three comments from students who had positive experiences with the protocols. After you read them, I want to start an exploration of what might be some of the "cognitive precursors" that would aid in practicing empathy. In other words, for empathy to blossom, it may need some fertile cognitive soil. What needs to be in the soil that will enhance the chances of growth?

From Jared:

To be frank, I hated writing empathy protocols. I have never been a fan of analyzing readings deeply, and I felt like this was forcing us to do that. I have always been the guy to sit down and just enjoy a book with no writing assignments or deep thinking required. Whenever I read anything before, I would take it completely at face value which, in my mind, means that I would look solely at the plot and analyze the chronological order of events and, overall how the book made it from the beginning to the end. It never occurred to me to empathize with the characters and to form a dialogic relationship with the text to try to understand how they see the world and understand how the characters drive the plot and perceive the other people in the story. By understanding how the characters construct their world it adds deeper elements to the plot, particularly it has helped me notice more conflict in text than I was capable of noticing before. Doing these protocols has allowed me to internalize these deeper reading skills as well. However much I hated focusing so much on analyzing readings so deeply, I am now able to subconsciously be more empathetic with characters at a much higher level than I was before. This is an element that I am still trying to work on as I feel that I should be able to relate with all characters that I read about and form a dialogic relationship with, because, after all, I am authoring the story as I read it.

From Maddie:

In the past, reading comprehension seemed to be a never-ending struggle for me. SAT's, Shakespeare, short stories, you name it—they’ve all been unbearably challenging.  For the longest time I felt like I understood assigned readings less than my peers and asked myself questions like: “how did she finish the reading so quickly and get so much more out of it?”  In fact, I had started to lose hope and confidence in myself when it came to reading. Through this process I have learned a lot about myself and how I think.  My mind works in metaphors, I’ve discovered, and I understand characters and plot based off of these metaphors.  Empathy protocols have shown me that by focusing on bettering my strengths, instead of attempting to improve my weaknesses, I am able to grow and make more progress as a learner. 

From Heather:

When I first started writing the empathy protocols, searching for metaphors felt like busy work. I read the chapter and then looked back at my annotations to look for similes or figurative references. This didn’t help me read though, because I was only looking for them so I could fill out the empathy protocol after I finished reading.
By the second empathy protocol, I read with a more “metaphorical lens.” Rather than looking for specific sentences that seemed metaphorical, I looked for patterns. Whenever I identified a word or idea multiple times, I marked it down as the chapter progressed. With this, I was able to put the pieces together. The interesting thing about this is that my assumptions about my metaphors changed as I read on. I would have a premise about the fish, for example, but then when it was brought up again, maybe I saw it differently. With this information, I was able to identify anomalies v. patterns, and then come up with predictions.
Without a doubt I found myself constantly focused on the metaphors. Even when I moved onto steps three and four, I continued to find more metaphors in my search for questions and assumptions. Step two definitely helped my reading the most because when I discovered metaphors/ myths, I would make assumptions and form questions based off of them.
Before CITYterm, when I read I constantly tried to connect with the characters. I felt that if I did not relate to characters, then any connection would be impossible. Through these empathy protocols, however, I have discovered that it is actually more beneficial to connect with metaphors and patterns in the text. By the end of these protocols, I realized that they were everything but busy work. While they ended up taking me at least an hour, I know for a fact that I read differently from now on. By differently I mean more metaphorically. Now, I have to start living my own life story metaphorically!

Congratulations, Mr Meglin! We've successfully removed your inner critic.

What Jared highlights in his response is the need for a "dialogic relationship" with the text. And what clearly happened for him was that he went from having an "I-It" relationship with the text to an "I-Thou" relationship.

For Maddie it was literally the realization that she thought in metaphors all the time, and that this was a huge strength when properly channeled. She had been so inculcated with the idea of the act of taking the text apart that she had begun to lose confidence in her ability to read. 

For Heather the whole protocol began to interweave in ways that I had not even considered. When I first started constructing the protocol I was trying for a kind of smorgasbord approach where one step (Deep Listening/Mindfulness/Metaphors) might appeal to one kind of reader and another step (Premises and Assumptions) to another kind of reader. What Heather showed me was that there was a greater connection amongst all of them than I had imagined. And then she took it one step further and began to see the whole approach as one she could apply to her own life. As Sartre once said,--the amazing thing about life is that we are both the author and the main character at the same time.

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